Netflix’s new “revisionist western”, “The Harder They Fall” by Jeymes Samuels, makes it clear at the start of the film that the story is fictional.
His characters, however, are based on real people. One in particular was a pioneer who created a wagon trail for gold miners heading out of what is now the Reno area of northwestern California.
The stretch of Highway 395 north of Reno to the California state border was originally a trail built for cart travel by James Beckwourth, who is played by RJ Cyler in “The Harder They Fall” . The popularity of the film has sources of information identifying the historical role of its characters.
Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia around 1798. His father was a white slave owner and his mother a slave. He emancipated himself around 1826. Crossbreeding allowed him to pass himself off as Native. He was even a member of the Crow Nation for about a decade and had ingenuous wives.
He was known as “‘Bloody Arm ‘because of his fighting skills. In the film, he is characterized as a fast shooter. In real life, this was probably also true, as he is known to have killed people due to his stints in raiding other native tribes, in addition to serving as a soldier.
Our Story Inc., a Reno-based non-profit organization, has a mission to “seek out, collect, preserve and exhibit the contributions, heritage and culture of people whose experiences are not well represented in the history of northern Nevada ”. The organization has a page dedicated to Beckwourth’s contributions to northern Nevada.
Part of Beckwourth’s fame is due to the fact that a book of his experiments was written and published in the mid-1800s.
“Beckwourth was a man of his time, and for the early Rocky Mountain fur trappers, the ability to ‘spin a good thread’ was a skill almost as valued as marksmanship or the art of woodworking,” notes the Our Story website. “And while Beckwourth certainly had a tendency to exaggerate the numbers or occasionally be the hero of events that happened to other people, later historians found that much of what Beckwourth recounted in his autobiography had actually happened. “
His book (read it online) was written by a judge – who was also reportedly a journalist – who stayed at the Beckwourth hotel in what is now known as Sierra Valley, California. The judge, Thomas Bonner, transcribed Beckwourth’s stories, edited the book and it was published in 1856 by Harper & Brothers in New York. (Beckwourth was to receive half of the royalties from the book. He never received a dime.)
A passage from his book was taken in Harpers:
“[Beckwourth] is evidently, but unconsciously for himself, losing all sympathy for the constraints of civilized society… He combines the superior intelligence of the white man (and that of a high order) with the cunning of the aborigines, and he is soon decked out in war paint, dressed in robes, and engaged in countless adventures.
The Our Story website states that Beckwourth’s book was considered “a joke.”
“Beckwourth’s role in American history has often been dismissed by historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were quite blatant in their prejudices, refusing to give any credit to a “half-blood bastard.”
Beckwourth’s life experiences are incredibly diverse. He was an explorer, trapper, pioneer, rancher, member of the Crow Nation (eventually becoming a “warlord”), a Confederate commander, a volunteer soldier in the Second Seminole War, a courier in the United States Army, a landlord. small business and a professional card player.
He also notoriously stole 1,800 horses from Mexico “as spoils of war” during the Mexican War.
Colorado Magazine in 1928 wrote the following about Beckwourth:
“An editorial in the Rocky Mountain News for December 1, 1859 is devoted to Beckwourth. From there we quote: “We had formed the opinion, as has, we presume, almost everyone, that Captain Beckwourth” as a rough and illiterate backwoodsman, but we were very pleasantly surprised to find him a gentleman polite, possessing a general fund of information that few can boast of.
His namesake locally reflects his role as a breeder, innkeeper and guide for gold miners heading to California via the Beckwourth Trail, now referred to in part as the Beckwourth Pass. He would have been the first settler of the Sierra Valley.
According to Our Story, “The trail left the California Trail from the Truckee River to where Reno now sits in Nevada. From there the trail went north and west (roughly along the route now followed by Route 395) and then turned west through Beckwourth Pass.
The Beckwourth Trail “spared settlers and gold diggers about 150 miles… and several steep slopes and dangerous passes, like Donner Pass.”
Trails West, another local nonprofit, maintains markers and has a trail guide in honor of Beckwourth.
“Thousands of wagons traveled the route from 1851 through the 1860s, avoiding the infamous Donner Pass,” Grayson and Carol Sorrels wrote in a Trails West newsletter after taking a field trip to visit tags.
Beckwourth’s cabin on Highway 70 and other structures can still be found near Portola, California. The Beckwourth Trail can still be followed today; however, it remains, as in the 1800s, dangerous in places.
When you watch “The Harder They Fall” Beckwourth’s character, much like in his own book, is embellished – however, it’s important to keep in mind that the man was incredibly accomplished and nuanced in real life. .
He died in 1867 while in a Crow group in Montana. He received a traditional Crow funeral in Laramie, Wyo.
Watch an interview with the cast of “The Harder They Fall”.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has held communications positions for various state agencies and received a PhD from the University of Nevada at Reno in 2011, where he completed a thesis on social media, journalism, and crisis communication. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time position in the extension office at Mineral County University of Nevada.